Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? The Lakers got their fifth win of the season in a fun Sunday night game against the Detroit Pistons (well, not so fun for Detroit), 114-99.
I felt Steve Blake set the tone early with his floor game. He had eight assists in the first period alone setting up his teammates on the right spots (like Wesley Johnson on alley-oops and Jordan Hill cutting to the basket). However, the Lakers defense seemed non-existent in the first half; the Pistons shot over 62 percent in the first 24. Detroit reminded the Lakers of their crosstown rivals with their alley-oops (that Brandon Jennings pass off the glass to Andre Drummond for the alley-oop was filthy).
Then the Lakers caught fire. Detroit’s shooting had to come down to Earth and, boy, did the Lakers take advantage. The Lakers turned up the defensive intensity, limiting the Pistons to 36 percent shooting in the second half. Jordan Hill seemed to be everywhere on both ends of the floor; he was scoring inside and outside and he was grabbing every rebound. And Nick Young (who continues to play well off the bench) ignited the run with back-to-back threes. Jordan Farmar caught fire as well (after a pretty bad slump the previous couple of games); he made a jumper to beat the third quarter buzzer. Overall, the Lakers scored 16 unanswered and by the time Jennings’ chucking finally started to pay off (he ended with 23 points and 14 assists), it was too late. What’s more: the Lakers were able to prevent Detroit from hitting the century mark, sending the fans at Staples with free food that starts with a “t” and ends with “-acos.”
Overall, this game was so much fun to watch (I think I already mentioned that, right?). Jordan Hill finished with an all-world performance of 24 points and 17 rebounds. Steve Blake had 16 assists (two short of his career high… and six short of ex-Laker Chris Duhon’s) to go along with his nine points. Blake has had double digits in assists in the last four games. Nick Young scored 19 points, his fourth straight game with double digits off the bench. Wesley Johnson had a few athletic plays that made you think he jumped off the rafters; he had 13 points. And Pau Gasol had a nice all-around game with 12 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists.
Lakers won’t be playing again until Friday when they face the Golden State Warriors. I know the Lakers are 5-7 but, for now, let’s enjoy this win. And we can enjoy this for the next few days.
That pretty much sums up how I feel about this game. In what is becoming a trend this season, the Lakers played a hard fought game and kept the contest close only to fall short at the end as the other team made the tough plays while they themselves fell short.
This game it was Zach Randolph who played hero for Memphis hitting tough shot after tough shot against Jordan Hill while the Lakers tried, unsuccessfully, to play their P&R game against a Grizzlies’ D that can still stiffen with a game on the line. Randolph scored 14 of his game high 28 points in the final period, working over Shawne Williams early and Hill late with a flurry of contested jumpers and unorthodox scoops and hooks around the basket.
If you are looking for positives on the Lakers’ side, they came from the guards as Jodie Meeks (25 points, 10-16 shooting), Nick Young (18 points on 7-14 shooting off the bench), and Steve Blake (9 points, 10 assists and only 1 turnover) all played aggressive, taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them. All deserve credit for playing to their strengths, but I especially like that Meeks was able to bounce back from a poor game in Denver and that Blake continued to play a very strong lead guard with Steve Nash out. Both guys are having pretty good years and even though there are some down moments, both play with a spirit and competitiveness that is contagious.
That’s about the most positive thing you can say about this team right now. They play hard most every night and that allows them to compete. If their execution could catch up to the effort they give they’d probably have a few more wins in the ledger. Instead, they fall to 4-7 on the season and show glimpses of being a good team but offer more moments when you wonder if they will really be able to do much more than stay close in games before Kobe comes back.
And make no mistake, this team misses Kobe. Not only did the head coach say so, but it’s clear that as the season progresses there’s a hole in leadership and production from a top tier player. Whether Kobe comes back to be that guy is an open question, but through the first part of year it’s clear that Gasol (who has played okay, but not up to a level the team needs from him) and Nash (who was playing poorly before his injury knocked him out of the lineup) are not those guys.
Instead this team relies on the composite effort from multiple role players, needing several of them to play to (or above) their ceilings each night to win. Against Memphis the team got that from Meeks, Young, and Blake, but did not get enough from any of the Farmar (zero points, 6 assists), Wes Johnson (zero points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists), and Xavier Henry (zero points, 1 rebound, 1 assist) trio. When that’s the case, this team will need bigger performances from Gasol and Hill, but tonight did not get them. The duo combined for a respectable 22 points and 18 rebounds, but with Randolph’s big night and Marc Gasol producing a line of 18, 8, and 8 it’s easy to see why this game was a loss.
The Lakers fell to the Nuggets, 111-99, after blowing out the Pelicans last night. They are now 0-3 on the second game of a back-to-back.
After a quick 8-0 start by the Lakers, it showed that the Lakers were on the tail end of a back-to-back. They looked tired in the first half; it was like the Nuggets were on Windows 8.1 while the Lakers were on Windows 95.
Still, the Lakers had a pretty strong third quarter, holding Denver to under 29 percent shooting in that period. So from time to time, you’ll get some good defense from the Lakers. Unfortunately, the Lakers couldn’t stop Timofey Mozgov throughout the contest; he ended with 23 points, nine rebounds, and four blocks. We all know the Lakers’ penchant of letting role players have all-star nights; Mozgov was that guy tonight. Wilson Chandler, who played his first game this season, also made some big threes in the fourth that helped close the door on the Lakers.
Denver seemed to score at will inside the paint. They scored 22 of their 33 first quarter points in the painted area. The Nuggets would end up having 60 of those points at the end.
Pau Gasol had his best scoring output this season with 25 points (on 27 shots). But we now know he’s dealing with a strained foot to add to that upper respiratory infection. Jordan Hill helped the Lakers get some energy back in the second half; he had 18 points and 15 rebounds. Steve Blake played another excellent floor game with 15 points and 11 assists. But once again, like they did against the Pelicans, they let this one get away in the fourth quarter despite all the sloppiness that happened in the first three quarters. As much as they had that effort in the second half, it would’ve been nice if they were able to take advantage of those second, third, and fourth chances. And Nick Young, you probably don’t want to inbound the ball to somebody who has his back turned.
The Lakers have been wildly up and down thus far but with this level of talent from that team, that is to be expected. They go back to Staples Center and play against the struggling Memphis Grizzlies on Friday (on a personal note, Friday is my birthday!). L.A. starts a four-game home stand (and FOUR DAYS off coming up) then. They’d better take advantage as the Lakers are 1-4 on the road so far.
The Lakers have had more exciting wins in this brief season, but none have been more complete and less reliant on extremes than this one over the Pelicans. By finally combining a strong offensive performance with very good defensive effort and execution, the Lakers made up for their loss against this same team last Friday by dominating them 116-95.
As with every win this season, the Lakers’ bench was a key factor in this one. The Lakers’ reserves scored 56 of the team’s 116, led by efficient efforts from Nick Young and Xavier Henry. Young poured in 17 points on only 11 shots, canning jumpers from all over the floor. Henry, meanwhile, added 15 of his own on only 8 field goal attempts, knocking down all three of his shots from behind the arc while also having the play of night when he hammered home a dunk over his former Jayhawk teammate Jeff Withey.
This contest, though, was more about what the starters provided. For the first time all season, the first five seemed to finally click, not only finding their rhythm but finding a way to maintain it for most of the night. And key to that was, seemingly, the shift that head coach Mike D’Antoni made with this group by putting a lineup on the floor that featured guys playing more in their traditional roles.Rather than playing a combination of a small back court and a super-sized front court, D’Antoni went with guys at their natural spots and it really seemed to pay off.
Instead of toiling away at shooting guard, Steve Blake stepped in for the injured Steve Nash and played a very smooth and controlled game all night. Blake probed the defense for openings, attacked when he found space, and, when he was able to draw a second (and sometimes a third) defender, made the right read to hit his teammates for open shots. Blake may have only scored 5 points on the evening, but he dished out 10 assists (to only 2 turnovers) and was the epitome of a floor general. Wes Johnson also slid into a more natural position as the starting small forward, rather than playing PF for most of his minutes. His production — 5 points and 5 rebounds — was nothing spectacular, but he played good defense on the wing and was aggressive when cutting to the rim and when attacking the glass.
The key to the starting lineup, however, was Jordan Hill. Moving out of his bench role and into the first group, Hill showed that his production when playing limited minutes wasn’t some fluke. Hill scored a team (and career) high 21 points while also grabbing 11 rebounds. Hill flashed his usual activity level on both ends of the floor and did a great job providing a physical presence in the paint, diving to the front of the rim out of the P&R on offense and challenging every shot he was within a couple of steps of defensively. Further, Hill showed very good chemistry with Pau Gasol, sliding into open spaces to make himself available for passes and ducking along the baseline when the Spaniard isolated in the post to ensure the proper spacing existed to allow for one-on-one work.
Taking a step back, then, it’s safe to say that while the individual performances were very good up and down the lineup, the bigger takeaway from this game was that D’Antoni deployed his players in personnel groupings and lineups that made more sense. Players were put in better positions to succeed by playing their more natural positions and that led to, at least from what we saw in terms of body language and how their games meshed, a greater sense of comfort from everyone. Beyond that, though, the substitution patterns and how bench and starters were mixed also made a lot of sense. The final result was a 10 man rotation in which every player saw good minutes and did so with a greater sense of purpose than at any other point during the year.
This isn’t to say that was the only reason the Lakers won. After dominating the Lakers this past Friday, Anthony Davis suffered through foul trouble for most of this game and was never really able to establish his presence on either end of the floor. With Davis on the bench, the Pelicans’ bigs had trouble matching up with Gasol, Kaman, and Hill on both ends which allowed the Lakers to control the paint and dictate the terms of engagement in the half court. Add to this the fact that the Lakers were playing at home and saw a lot of their jumpers fall and it’s difficult to just say “the rotation was better so the team won”. No, it was much more than that.
However, as noted above, the rotation and personnel groupings were smoother and the results were fantastic. On the evening the Lakers went with two primary lineups and both produced at levels that we’ve not really seen in the same game, for the full game, all year. The starters played 18 minutes together and posted an offensive efficiency of 115.7 and a defensive efficiency of 97.9 in those minutes. Meanwhile, the primary bench group of Farmar, Henry, Young, Williams, and Kaman played a combined 13 minutes together and posted an offensive efficiency of 114.8 and a defensive efficiency of 86.1 in those minutes. These numbers were definitely influenced by how poorly the ‘Cans played on both ends of the floor for long stretches, but you have to credit the Lakers for forcing them into a lot of bad shots, cleaning up their defensive glass, and then moving the ball and making the most of their offensive possessions on the other end.
Whether or not this lasts is something we don’t yet know. But D’Antoni may have finally found some lineups and rotations that work for this team in the long term, so beyond the great win, that is what should be celebrated after this game.
All of this spells some trouble for the Lakers as they face a team with specific match ups that have been problematic this year. If there are two positions the Lakers haven’t been able to handle well this season it’s been skilled power forwards and shooting guards with size who can really score. The Warriors’ game immediately comes to mind, but also the Pelicans’ game where Anthony Davis had his way on both ends. With Love and Martin, the question isn’t necessarily how to slow them down — there are game plans that can be put in place to limit one or both — but whether the Lakers even have the personnel to do so.
Love has evolved into the premier stretch big man in the league. He can not only hit the three ball, but has the ability to put the ball on the floor against a close out against bigger players or post up and dominate the offensive glass against smaller ones. The Lakers don’t have a player with the combination of size, quickness, and rebounding prowess to limit Love and that can lead to Love having his way in this game. As for Martin, his style of running off screens and cutting actively against aggressive defenders is one that Steve Blake is used to defending, but with his size and craftiness off the dribble, Blake will still have his problems containing Martin in all that he does.
What the Lakers need, then, is to be as sharp as they can be in their half court defense and understand where to be in help situations at all times. Love and Martin have the ability to play 25 feet away from the rim and still be effective and it’s in combatting that spacing where the Lakers need to be sharp. Can Gasol, Kaman, Hill, and Wes Johnson rotate from the paint to the perimeter and then back to the paint to contest shots and rebound? Can the wings shade their man and limit penetration while making the correct back side rotation to either contest shots on the wing or body up a big man crashing the offensive glass? And, most importantly, can these groups of players work in unison to accomplish these tasks on any given play and not suffer miscommunications that can lead to wide open shots or easy put-backs? If they can, the Lakers will be in this game throughout. If they can’t, this could get out of hand early.
The above is from the preview for this game. So, while I hate to say I told you so…well, I told you so.
The Lakers lost this game in the 1st quarter when the Wolves used blistering shooting from Kevin Love and Kevin Martin to take a 24 point lead into the 2nd period. I could go on and on about how it happened, but all you really need to know comes from these two tweets:
Kevin Love 18, Lakers 16 w/ 1:39 left in the 1st quarter.
That’s right, with the 1st period almost over, the Lakers, as a team, had been outscored by Love and were tied with Kevin Martin. By the time the period was over, the team trailed by 24 points and the game was essentially over.
We could get into the details, but the how is really immaterial, right? This may not be who the Lakers are every night, but it’s who they’re possible of being on any given night. And it’s certainly who they likely will be when the match ups line up a certain way and things tilt against them just enough that those match ups get exploited.
So, really, I don’t know if there’s a lesson to be learned here. At least not one we weren’t already at least partially aware of. The Lakers are capable of being bad. The “how” in this equation matters if you really want to dive deep into an analysis, but when it comes to wins and losses the “how” becomes less relevant. Whether it’s bad defense, bad offense, or a little (or even a lot) of both the losses will come when you don’t play every minute hard and when you don’t have the talent other team’s have.
In that respect, this was a loss we could see coming. And if you read the three paragraphs cited at the top of this post, we saw it coming. This team will surprise on some nights, but in this game they didn’t; in this game the things that didn’t favor them in this match up were exploited by their opponent. It really is that simple. Other nights, that won’t be the case. Against different opponents, the Lakers may play above their heads (or their opponents play below theirs) and it will shift the terms the game is played on. Minnesota did the dictating in this game, however. It probably won’t be the last time this happens to the Lakers this season either.